Donald Trump set heads to scratching on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day by sharing a proverb with his gathered “Irish friends” that was neither Irish nor a proverb, as far as anyone could tell. Unfortunately for lovers of irony everywhere, however, it was also not the work of a 30-something Nigerian banker, as many Google searchers suggested after finding the stanzas listed on Poemhunter.com, in a submission by Albashir Adam Alhassan.
Alhassan has since assured CNN, NBC News and Buzzfeed that the work is most definitely his. A quick search of Trump’s “proverb,” though, immediately turns up online in inspirational quote books, toast books, books full of blessings, homemade books, memes and many religious books, including a union journal from the 1930’s we dug up in a rare bookstore in San Francisco. So Alhassan is either really old or bending the truth about his poetic endeavors.
And since many Twitter users pointed out the phrase was not remotely well-known or even Irish, we asked a Boston College English professor who specializes in Irish literature and culture about the poem. The professor said he’d never encountered it and also couldn’t find it in a book of Irish blessings, though he couldn’t definitively say it wasn’t Irish and didn’t want to be named because who would want to be drawn into this ridiculous mess.
Here’s Trump’s St. Paddy’s Day wisdom, which truly has the ring of great Irish literature: “Always remember to forget the friends that proved untrue but never forget to remember those that have stuck by you.”
On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, Trump shares an Irish proverb: pic.twitter.com/U7FoWV2czK
Axios (@axios) March 16, 2017
And here’s where the confusion set in. On PoemHunter.com, “Remember to Forget” was submitted by and attributed to Alhassan in January 2013, which includes the stanza:
Always remember to forget,
The friends that proved untrue,
But never forget to remember,
Those that have stuck to you.
A look at Alhasssan’s biography states he was born in Nigeria in the “mid ’80s.” (He says he also loves “basketball, music, poems, video games and sleeping.”) His Facebook and LinkedIn profile list him as a business manager at the First Bank of Nigeria. In a CNN interview, he stands by the poem as his own. He told the network, “I posted those things when I was back in school, over 10 years ago. I never thought it would get to this level.”
Google a bit harder, however, and you find many of the books in which it appears are from the 1990s and early 2000s, which would make Alhassan a very young, or extremely old, poet whose work got around, without anyone attributing the poem to him.
Roy B. Zuck included it in his 1997 book, The Speaker’s Quote Book: Over 5,000 Illustrations and Quotations for All Occasions. In the 1994 Christian book Under Construction: Pardon the Mess: A Collection of Family-building Thoughts the poem is unattributed and titled “Remember.” We found the book’s editor, Viola Walden, but she died in 2007. Her publisher, Sword of the Lord (we’re not kidding), has promised to look into the origin of the poem for us.
But the “Irish proverb” goes back further than that. Another Christian book from 1994, Social, Cultural, Economic & Religious Life of a Transformed Community: A Study of the Paite Tribe attributes the poem to the American Missionary Society, a religious abolitionist group formed in the U.S. in the 1800s. They published American Missionary magazine, which ran until 1934. (Their archives aren’t searchable, so we haven’t been able to track down a copy. Yet.)
The poem does appear in an April 1936 report from the “The International Stereotypers & Electrotypers’ Union Journal,” which we tracked down in a rare bookstore in San Francisco. An employee found the poem as part of a local union secretary’s report out of Connecticut. Trump’s proverb was printed on page 216, part of a three-stanza poem that was included at the end of the report with no attribution aside from Harold Keating, the Secretary of Local 83 out of New Haven who compiled the report.
From here the trail goes cold, but we know the poem was around in 1930s America.
Maybe, just maybe, it hailed originally from Ireland and made its way to the states and into the hands of Christian missionaries. (Though we have yet to find an Irish person who’s heard of it.) And then somehow Alhassan encountered it as a Nigerian student in the 2000s and claimed it as his own.
But he isn’t its originator and while, sure, an Irish person could have conceivably written the rhyme, proverb is most definitely pushing it. Whether the Trump team pulled it from Poemhunter.com or a slapdash Google search for “best Irish blessing” will remain a mystery for the ages for now our email to the White House went unanswered.
Let it be a lesson to us all: Before you make a speech on live television in front of a bunch of Irish people for their highest holiday, set aside a little more time for Googling. Or, hey, pick up a book.